Last week, I went back to school. Kind of.
I’ve been selected to be a part of a private fiction critique group on a trial basis, so for the next six weeks, I’ll be critiquing the work of six other members and hoping my critiques are useful enough to earn me a permanent invitation.
Bored already? Yeah, I get it. Don’t worry, I won’t be talking about critiquing fiction.
But I’ll tell ya, I had forgotten what it’s like to enter a new academic-style setting. And all of the feelings that go along with that.
At the outset, let me just say that I have always hated school. If you think I’m uptight now, you should have seen me at age 19 taking biology for the first time in university. My little brother Matthew would walk into my mom’s office — I lived at home for undergrad — and there I would be talking my notes out to the wall, trying desperately to remember that sharks are made of cartilage and do not have a swim bladder.
My study tactic was pretty straightforward: just bloody memorize all of it. Didn’t matter how long it took, as long as I could recite every last piece of the textbook back to, well, a wall, I felt I would have a pretty good chance on the test.
My shoulders lived permanently in my ears for four years.
My problem, of course, is that I was pretty sure I was too dumb to be in university. And I was especially sure I was too dumb to say anything of interest in class. And I was absolutely positive that if I did open my mouth, buddy, nothing but stutter was going come out of it.
But as I progressed from undergrad to graduate school, those classes kept getting smaller. And by the time I hit my final year of grad school, the class didn’t even take place in a classroom anymore. It was in a “seminar” room (could they have chosen a more intimidating word?) where we sat at a table and there were, like, five of us. Including the professor. Who had lost patience with my insecurity and shyness.
So I would spend the entire three-hour class keeping track of how many people made how many comments knowing that eventually, I, too, would have to say something.
It’s a wonder I ever learned anything.
Fast forward 23 years. Yes, 23 whopping years. And now I was at home with a stack of chapters I had to critique. I didn’t feel too terrible about the prospect of writing the critiques, but that wasn’t our only work. There was also a discussion forum in which we, as trial members, were expected to participate to discuss topics like point of view and synopses and conflict and character.
Don’t worry, I won’t be talking about POV, synopses, conflict and character.
But let it be known: that discussion forum has become the bane of my existence. All of a sudden, at age 44, I was right back to being 21 again. Completely shy, completely convinced I was not qualified to be there, completely inclined to stay mute as a result.
And that’s deeply disappointing. Because that means, in 23 years, absolutely no progress has taken place on the insecurity front. No progress in terms of thinking, hey, I’ve at least picked up a few tricks along the way.
Instead, even if I do something right, I immediately convince myself it was luck and that I won’t be able to pull it off again. Go ahead and stitch my shoulders to my ears.
Except. A fascinating thing happened to me last week. And the reason why I’m writing about all this (and threatening you with literary terms) is I learned about something called Imposter’s Syndrome, which Wikipedia defines as a “psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’”
It happens more to women than men and it happens more to minorities as well. And, well, it’s a real thing. Something recognized not just by Wikipedia but the American Psychological Association. And I have it!
Oh my foes and oh my friends, I can’t tell you what a relief it is to know that that this ugly part of me actually has a label and, what’s more, I can actually do something about it.
Now, what, exactly, I’m still trying to figure out. And trying to convince myself I’m not too dumb to do that. And so it begins …